Ericsson CEO pegs O-RAN as key for 6G

Ericsson
“O-RAN will be a fundamental part of the 6G solutions. That’s no question in my mind," said Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm. (FierceWireless)

Ericsson’s chief executive said on Friday that the Swedish vendor will have open RAN products when the technology is ready for the market, but doesn’t see that on the immediate horizon. In the meantime, the Swedish vendor is staying focused on dedicated gear that can be deployed for 5G now.

“It’s a here and now question, where we do believe the purpose-built networks actually can deliver the performance that’s required in 5G today,” Börje Ekholm said during Ericsson’s second quarter earnings call. “By the time O-RAN is ready, we will also be there with solutions, but we don’t feel it’s the right time right now and divert focus from actually what goes on in the market.”

Ericsson has been less vocal than competitor Nokia about committing to equipment that complies with O-RAN specifications, which some see as posing a challenge to the large traditional vendors with the introduction of smaller and newer entrants that don’t need to build end-to-end systems as operators could mix and match

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In different forums, such open RAN inquiries from NTIA and the FCC, Ericsson has advocated for a technology-agnostic approach.

Still, Ekholm on Friday emphasized that the company is actually very active in standards bodies, saying Ericsson is the largest contributor to the O-RAN Alliance on standards. Ericsson also opened a lab in the U.S. focused testing and co-creation with customers and other partners around its cloud RAN portfolio, and recently joined the 5G Open Innovation Lab as a corporate partner.  

With 5G deployments currently underway around the globe, Ericsson doesn’t appear to be in an O-RAN rush as it aims to win business. Ericsson already supplies 93 live 5G networks globally and just landed its biggest contract in company history – an $8.3 billion 5G deal with Verizon.

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That doesn’t mean the vendor doesn’t see the O-RAN train coming. Several major operators are interested in or pursuing open RAN, including AT&T, Vodafone, and Rakuten to name a few. In the U.S. Dish Network is working on a greenfield 5G network build using open architecture.   

“The reality is clearly O-RAN is something that will happen and that's what we are investing for as well,” Ekholm said, adding that its Cloud RAN platform is the first step in helping customers shift to an open architecture.

O-RAN goes further, complying with O-RAN Alliance-specified open interfaces between certain network components, in part enabling interoperability between products from different suppliers.

Ekholm said: “It will take a few years before we have a fully operational O-RAN solution. Then we can debate how long it is," but there’s the matter of building out 5G coverage currently, which Ericsson sees its customers doing.

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In terms of timeline, he said that O-RAN could be applied sooner in certain scenarios that have less performance demands, such as rural coverage.

While it views some applications possible shorter-term, he definitely expects O-RAN to be an important part of the 6G picture.

“O-RAN will be a fundamental part of the 6G solutions. That’s no question in my mind. But exactly how it’s going to pan out in the meantime, I think remains to be seen,” he said.

Groups are just starting early work on 6G systems, which could happen roughly in the 2030 timeframe.